I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
On the train again headed back to London after a lovely time in Cornwall. We toured the hills and fields, dined on regional fare — baps, fish and chips, pasties, clotted cream, cones of Cornish whippy — communed with ducks, geese, crows, and seagulls, not to mention dogs, dogs, all manner of canine, Boscastle is a doglovers’ paradise — plus wildflowers, we mustn’t forget wildflowers, hedgerows dotted with dainty purple foxgloves and daisies, with time set aside Saturday night, after all this Arcadian hiking and lazing about, for a candlelit evening tour of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Among the displays of charms and potions and wishing mirrors, the items that most intrigued me were the colorful Golden Dawn artifacts and the ornate robe worn in rituals performed by Argentum Astratum.
Pint glasses clank together in a bin behind a bar emptied of patrons on a gray evening — the eve of another workweek. Pubs of this sort are all wood, leather, and tweed. Old-timey, tradition-bound. But comfortable all the same. I’ve been reading up on witches these past few days, Alex Mar’s book Witches in America leading me through a brief history featuring figures like Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley and groups like the OTO. I’m of mixed mind regarding this history, curious but wary. The power of these traditions seems undeniable — but what are the principles guiding this power, and toward what end?
I wake from a series of vivid anxiety dreams and Trump-inspired apocalyptic nightmares. The first reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island retold in the style of Angela Carter. A grifter drives her car off an embankment into a stand of trees. Still a bit woozy from her crash, she wanders into an enchanted garden, at the center of which stands the twenty-first-century equivalent of a witch’s cottage. When the grifter learns that the cottage is for sale, she poses as a potential buyer. In a second dream, by far the more frightening of the two, a pair of middle-aged shock jocks wait in a hotel room preparing for a visit from the president. The shock jocks look oddly similar to one another. Picture Sir Richard Branson as a pair of coke-addled stringy-haired Texans. Close-up of a swastika carved into the bun of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. The POV withdraws to reveal my dream-self watching the shock jocks on a monitor, as if they were part of a feed from a surveillance camera. A woman enters the room and with infinite care suggests that I get my plans in order for the time ahead — at which point I wake.
I plug in Walter Wegmuller’s Tarot and float down a canal.
Sarah and her colleague J. are preparing to teach a course about witches this summer. The course includes a screening of Suspiria, and who did J. run into at the Leonora Carrington exhibition this afternoon? None other than one of the stars of the recent Suspiria remake, Tilda Swinton. Let us muse upon this most witchy of synchronicities as geese fly overhead.
I begin today’s phenomenological experiment by learning seven magic words and settling into the echo chamber of harpist Sarah Pagé’s Dose Curves.
Next I read Sofia Samatar’s “An Account of the Land of Witches,” in anticipation of my trip to London. “The Mountaineer is for going on,” Samatar writes, “the Harpist for exploring the rooms” (164). I search for my relationships to the figures in Samatar’s tale, self-identifying in turn as both the Navigator and the Scribe. The story is an enchanting one, leaving unclosed the doors it opens.
“The mind attracts to one whatever the mind dwells upon,” reads a page I flip to in a college-ruled notebook pulled from the bins at Goodwill. The moon, waxing gibbous, pulled Sarah and I toward a Halloween party the other night. Appropriately heady, for sure, and with major magic. An altar-top arrayed with small bones. Conversations washed over me, though, to little effect. Appalachian Southern witches. Symbols of an arcane sort. It was the party of my coming out as a wizard. At one point, Sarah turned to me and read me my horoscope from her Witches’ Almanac. Apparently I’m on the verge of making a big decision which will “raise a lot of dust.” The horoscope also promised “nice aesthetics” this month. But as much as I enjoyed the care and attention to detail that went into the night’s revelries, Daphne’s death weighed solidly on my mind. It was hard to muster enough will to speak with others. Speaking of speaking: My students love to speak highly of their parents’ “hard work” launching pizza chains and amassing fortunes on Wall Street. Whenever I hear this shit, I think to myself: One could say the same about vampires. They, too, work hard sucking blood from their victims. But that doesn’t make them admirable. A hardworking vampire is still a vampire — and as such, deserves to get a stake shoved through its heart. And that’s how I feel about rich people. But I’m also no Van Helsing, so to ease my temper, I binge-watch the new season of Stranger Things. Eleven wanders alone in an Upside Down labyrinth. Thresholds between dimensions look like body tissue: uterine walls, placentas. The show relishes and savors the textures, tropes, and technologies of the 1980s. But it’s also fully absorbing in its sympathies and its use of outdated media to elicit a sense of the strange or the uncanny. New Age “psychic” or “telepathic” spaces — astral planes, other dimensions — these were very much a part of that era’s narrative universe. It’s a relief to watch a show that can once again broaden my sense of the potentials of genre. The latter, because sticky with the residue of an era’s affective investments, can reawaken phantom media antennae, exposing subjects to ghost sensations and histories half-submerged.